Susan Choi's fantastic new novel...can be roughly described as an academic novel, but it pushes the form and makes it thrilling, not cozy ... The academic novel married to the novel of obsession is almost too pleasurable to contemplate, but that's what this book is. It's like caramel plus salt, that current snack food trend. And I bring up snack food here because My Education is an addicting read ... But I don't mean to say that this book is light; it isn't. It's dark and moody and intense ... the writing never falters, and I was never bored ... she beautifully explores the way a young person tries, and often fails, to navigate her budding and intersecting sexual, intellectual and emotional lives. The writing in this novel is masterful—but the book did something to me emotionally, too. I felt like I was in an obsessive relationship with it. I wanted to read it all the time. And it wasn't only the story, or the characters, or their passion. It was the excitement of reading a writer whose work reminds you—actually educates you—about the power of a really good novel.
Choi's sentences are dense: more happens on one page in My Education than in entire chapters of other books ... complex characters. Martha, in particular, is one of the finest fictional creations I've seen in a long time ... the ending...surprises ... Choi is fearless about moving her characters back into one another's lives. In so doing, she achieves something rare in real life: closure. An imperfect closure...of what's left after passion has burned itself away.
... elegantly written ... Lovers’ gender, Choi suggests, says little about emotional experience. This isn’t quite untrue, and you wouldn’t wish for a novel bogged down in identity politics. But there is something suspect ... Several earnestly heated sex scenes, for one, suggest otherwise. For even if psychologically we may ignore the facts of the body, sexually we depend upon them ... My Education shows...timidity with the relevant political stakes, perhaps to similarly apolitical effect ... the affair’s psychological effects on Regina, though made much of at the time, don’t reverberate deeply into her adulthood ... Choi is a graceful, perceptive writer, and all of her novels are striking for the visual beauty of her descriptions. At the same time, the somewhat indiscriminate attentiveness of her prose tends to plane smooth the texture of her narratives. A trivial dinner conversation in Choi’s hands receives the same careful scrutiny as a life-altering betrayal. The effect, in the end, is of a keen but somewhat purposeless talent. The more sweepingly Choi applies her considerable gifts, the more difficult it is to say what particularly matters to this writer and why.
Regina is young, and more than that, she’s callow, selfish, absorbed by her emotions, unable to empathize even with the woman she claims to adore. That may be Choi’s most vivid achievement, to get us to care about a character who, for much of the book, we find difficult, disruptive, a force of chaos. I’m not talking about likability, which remains, for me, beside the point. Still, there’s no question that Regina can be infuriating, especially when she’s turning a deaf ear to Martha’s very real commitments: to her baby, to her husband, to her job. The more she whines about not being loved well enough, the more we drift away from her, which is what Choi means for us to do. By putting us so deeply into Regina’s head, she enables us to see what she’s misreading, how her immaturity, her intractability contribute to her misery ... That Regina can’t understand this only makes the moment more powerful ... a stunning insight, a deft evocation of the unbridgeable gap between inner and outer life. As My Education progresses, however, Choi loses sight of this, moving toward a resolution the novel doesn’t need.
Who could possibly trace another erotic tension or envious impulse through the groves of academe? Answer: Susan Choi. She’s never sounded smarter or wittier ... by the force of her stylistic virtuosity and psychological precision, Choi gives this worn setup all the nubile energy of a new school year ... a hilarious parody of self-righteous feminism and political correctness ... Choi’s great triumph here is her ability to create a voice that enacts Regina’s cluelessness while simultaneously critiquing her. She’s the embodiment of that uniquely modern educational disaster: the brilliant student who knows nothing ... Choi tries—and largely succeeds—to convey the overwhelming sensation of Regina’s first experience with 'lovemaking’s arduous toil.' Sometimes, that’s thrilling. Sometimes, it involves effusing lines that might catch the attention of the judges for the Bad Sex Award ... The impossible highs of youthful passion, the inevitable despair of asymmetrical devotion, and especially the withering bickering between two lovers of such wildly different levels of maturity—it’s all here in engorged Technicolor. What makes this so delicious, though, is Choi’s relentless style, the unflagging force of her scrutiny. She spins Regina’s voice into a breathless parody of Jamesean analysis ... few other writers alive today make their sentences work so hard ... Although...I’ve got to say that I found the 80-page coda of My Education distractingly poor ... this conclusion wastes the focused energy that the body of the novel generates. It thrusts a side character awkwardly into the center of the plot and introduces new characters whom we can’t care about. Worse, this novella-length section revolves around a series of quickly developed, even zany events that lack the necessary combination of wit and plausibility.
I went into this novel ready and willing to be educated, you might say. But My Education left me more frustrated than enlightened. I found it lacking in the kind of depth necessary to impart wisdom. And aside from one exciting narrative thread we get to indulge in early on, it also suffers from a shortage of what should be its most vital, or at least its most enticing, element: sex appeal ... Choi is at her best in fashioning Brodeur, the elusive, brilliant academic with an ’80s bad boy edge and a blue blood twist, and his wife, Martha ... And then comes the plot twist, an impressive, totally unexpected little turn that shifts the story’s course entirely and is by far My Education’s most satisfying moment ... And once it ends, things take a dive. Not only for Regina, but for the novel as a whole ... If this book were able to glory in its raciness, perhaps the heavy-handed phrase here or there would be less offensive ... My Education’s main problem: Regina herself. Not only does her voice as narrator never really develop, there is also a lot missing about who she is, on a basic getting-to-know-you level. One gets the impression that Regina’s characterization is an oversight on Choi’s part, a case of the writer knowing this person so well in her mind that she fails to paint an adequate picture for the reader ... My Education did not deliver, leaving me not only neutral on the erotic front but glaringly unenlightened, above all.
... funny and frustrating ... it is somewhat baffling that Regina, who is not terribly likable, has in her life a number of people who find her extraordinary and irresistible as either a lover or a friend. Whatever the source of her magnetism, we are lucky she has it, because it keeps the tenderhearted Dutra in her orbit. Regina’s brilliant housemate and unshakably loyal friend, he is the most fully drawn character in My Education, seemingly peripheral to the story but truly its steady, beating heart ... Dutra is Choi...at her best, twining psychological insight with anthropological savvy to pinpoint a character, a moment in time, a milieu ... But there are patches of My Education where Choi’s otherwise fleet prose tangles and bogs down, usually in great expanses of description that feel writerly, not in a good way.
Choi...is at her best when describing the soul-consuming, life-spinning vortex of Regina's desperate, needy love for Martha ... Choi wields a dazzling dexterity with language, spicing the novel with gems of precisely-crafted phrasing and slivers of insight into the human psyche ... Ultimately, however, the novel suffers from the self-absorption of its central characters. Although painted as alluring, magnetic women, Regina and Martha emerge as selfish and unlikeable, only dimly aware of the impact their actions have on the lives of those around them. Even Regina's eventual awakening rings hollow, a redemptive act negated by an all-too-facile infidelity.
Choi's talent resides in her densely layered prose and her slowing down the pace to draw readers into the inner worlds of her characters. The result is a deeply human tale of intentional mistakes, love and lust, and the search for a clearer vision of one's self.
With a sharp eye and piercing insights, Choi captures the heady romanticism that infuses a youthful love affair before the responsibilities and realities of adulthood set in. This is a masterful coming-of-age novel
... dark and stormy ... Even as Regina loses her way, though, the narrative never lacks direction. Choi keeps the moments between her characters believable while building momentum toward the illicit lovers’ inevitable falling-out.
... a novel that somehow feels both overstuffed (style) and undernourished (substance) ... Regina Gottlieb seems as clueless and directionless as she is articulate (or at least verbose; she expresses herself in convoluted sentences and paragraphs that test the reader’s endurance) ... Flash forward 15 years...her past improbably returns as more than flashbacks ... There seems to be a happy ending here, though it’s hard to be certain for whom.